Prejudices are attitudes that may lead to the stereotyping of and discrimination against certain groups, usually minorities. Psychologists have conducted detailed studies on prejudice. In this article, we’ll approach prejudice, especially in education, from a psychological perspective.
What is psychological prejudice and discrimination? How does it occur? What factors are associated with it?
Prejudice involves, 1) a stereotypical idea that can be defined as an unfounded belief against a group of people; and 2) it is accompanied by strong emotions (Quillian, 2006).
In one of the first psychological studies of prejudice, Allport (1954) said prejudice is “incorrect or based on an inflexible generalization dislike.” Since Allport’s study, the psychological theories of bias have become more sophisticated. The name of the group being discriminated against, the words used against them, and the methods of discrimination may vary, but prejudicial attitudes are the common axis. The most common are nationalism, racism, sexism, and homophobia.
Unfortunately, prejudice is deeply ingrained in humans. For example, the social perception of anger has been shown to lead to more stereotypes and prejudices (Bodenhausen, Sheppard & Kramer, 1994). Anger affects our ability to be rational. Irrationality provides fertile ground for the blossoming of prejudice.
Prejudices are used, in thoughts and behaviors, without realizing it. Most of the time we do not accept that we, ourselves, are prejudiced, even though it is likely we hold, consciously or not, some prejudiced ideas. Becoming conscious of our own prejudices is an important step towards eliminating them.
Among many possible sources of prejudice, the following come forward more prominently than others:
Prejudice is learned in childhood: Children often learn prejudice from their parents or other adults in their community.
Prejudice is part of one’s personality: This view argues that prejudice is inherent in people born with authoritarian personalities.
Prejudice as a result of group membership: People tend to create an “us” vs “them” dynamic. When a person is a member of a group, they often stereotype members of other groups.
Prejudice can, unfortunately, exist in education settings. Teachers and students are human, after all, and are therefore influenced by psychological biases, like the fundamental attribution error, when we assume that others who behave in a certain way do so because of their character (a fixed trait) rather than in response to environmental circumstances. In-group bias leads us to assign positive characteristics and motivations to people who are similar to us.
As Bertrand Russell stated, “The good individual is he who ministers to the good of the whole, and the good of the whole is a pattern made up of the goods of the individuals.” It is on the shoulders of teachers to build bridges between each person and society by making the best of schools, and mobilize the unique potential embedded in personalities for the use of society, and more generally, humanity. To be able to reveal the true potential of every student, it is important to treat each one of them as valuable members of our society. The greatest and most dangerous waste is the waste of human capital. The emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects of human nature offer such a wide spectrum of colors that the ideal teacher will enable their students to discover their own colors within this spectrum.
If neither the teacher nor the student pushes the communication or expresses their expectations, it is very likely that they have developed some sort of a prejudice towards each other. Students sometimes feel they are taking up too much of a teacher’s time with frequent communications. Teachers may assume that a child who does not ask many questions is uninterested or does not have any issues to address. Classroom communication often suffers when students are bored or unenthusiastic about their schoolwork. I know it is impossible to entertain students all day, but teachers should work hard to develop engaging lessons with interesting, relevant activities. Thought-provoking assignments, technology-enhanced lectures, and creative projects spur classroom communication and interaction. On the other hand, outdated and monotonous assignments create communication barriers, and students just want the class to be over.
Occasionally, misunderstandings can result in prejudice. Teacher must disentangle the underlying message in communications from students and avoid making unwanted assumptions. If you are about to give an opinion, it is best to think a bit about it before moving ahead. As for students, there is nothing wrong in disagreeing with your teacher but the conversation should be constructive. But similarly, there is nothing right about thoughtless opinions.
A good educator should be able to listen to the silent words that pour from their students’ tongues of disposition. Students may not talk to the teacher directly, but their looks, facial expressions, their interactions with their teacher, and their voice levels and tones, all reflect their inner emotions.
Students, being young, do not think about their biases rationally; they think about them emotionally. Biases make students feel mistrustful. "Mistrustful" is just that: a feeling. Our natural response is to avoid its source. If we have prejudices, we hide our feelings. If we get a bad grade, we blame teachers. Academic success does not come from how smart or motivated students are. It comes from how they feel about their biases. Changing students’ perspective on biases is the greatest gift a teacher can give. Imagine having a classroom of students who are engaged and constantly improving; it is every teacher's dream.
Building friendships, empathy, trust, and tolerance are some of the best ways to break down barriers of prejudice. It is suggested that actively trying to take the perspective of another person—as opposed to trying to be “objective”—increases one’s ability to not fall prey to stereotypical views of others. Actively inducing empathy for another person has been tied to a willingness to consider environmental circumstances more closely when dealing with misbehavior. One recent study has found that training teachers in empathy cut student suspension rates in half.
Positive cross-group friendships can have a contagious effect in other people within social groups, turning whole communities into warmer, more receptive spaces for interactions. The success of all of this is related to teachers’ role-modeling the kind of behavior they want to see in their students.
A good friend is the one who points out our mistakes and biases. Learning from their warnings is important to understand and acknowledge our biases, and the best way to move forward is to improve ourselves by not repeating the same mistakes again.